Vials of chemicals, manmade organisms and groups trying to get them to do their bidding.
They’re no mad scientists, and these are no monsters. This is the International Genetically Engineered Machines team at the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space, or BUGGS.
It’s not bugs the team is growing, though. They’re working on genetically engineered bio-printed organisms ahead of the November iGEM competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The team members have big ideas, like yeast cells that could desalinate water or lab cells that automatically die off after a set number of generations.
The iGEM group is currently seeking funds to support supplies and their trip to the November competition. More information is available on their website.
In January, Ryan Hoover of Lauraville rigged a 3D printer with parts he bought off eBay. The modified printer uses hot water, agar and plant cells to print “bio-bricks” of the engineered cells.
“It’s a very sort of narrow wedge of temperature that we’re working in, because it has to be warm enough to keep the agar liquid, but not so hot that we’re cooking the cells,” said Hoover, whose day job is as director of fabrication services at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
“There’s a lot of people working with doing 3D printing and tissue engineering but it’s primarily for the goal of being able to print organs eventually,” said Hoover, who was the second to join the group.
But right now, the group’s members (about eight or nine at a typical meeting) are working on the basics. On a recent Wednesday evening, Tom Burkett led the group through a program called Gene Designer, a sort of Dreamweaver for molecular biologists as the group talked about the basics of genetic coding.
“We want to change the base without changing the amino acid,” he said as he scribbled around lines and diagrams of the T’s, G’s, A’s and C’s that make up DNA. “If we change the amino acid, we change the function of the protein.”
Burkett cofounded BUGSS in 2012 and said the center, located inside the Highlandtown building where the Emerging Technology Center has space, was formed in response to a perceived interest in science outside of popular shows like “Nova” and “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”
“We have some people who have training in biology, but most people don’t have training,” he said. “When we started this, we sensed that there was this undercurrent of people interested in biology, but … you can’t really get your hands on to learn how to do it.”
And with iGEM, he attracted more than just those considered the usual subjects. The group contains two artists (including Hoover), a computer scientist and a mechanical engineer. And a former BUGSS member now works in a lab that’s building 3D printers for the purpose of producing human body parts.
“There’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of development happening in that,” Hoover said.